Thank you and goodbye, shaping guru.
I spent last Sunday at the Boardroom Show in Del Mar.
I haven’t been to a trade event in years, but it was the same as ever; I drag my feet walking in, spot a friendly face, then another, and next thing you know the day has passed and I’ve done nothing but talk and laugh and catch up with people I know and like, and then driving back to Manhattan Beach I had a magical classic rock run on Sirius XM’s ’70s on 7. Long live the well-exhumed deep cut. It was an excellent Sunday.
But I couldn’t wait to get back to Squid Game and Injury Reserve and dream-scrolling my grey-on-black Lucid Air with Dreamdrive Pro package, and the rest of what is best about 2021, because while my relationship to the past is grounding and warm and enduring, the new thing can still hit me like a razor tapping on glass, and everything else blurs as I rush toward it, ready to devour.
Don’t get me wrong.
Both are necessary, past and present, and I keep my neck limber so that I can look smoothly behind and forward.
But the only reason I can run a surfing encyclopedia website and not bore the shit out of you guys—and ipso facto not bore the shit out of myself—is because I’ve made a cattle-prod of the present and figured out how and where and when to stick it into our shared history.
Leap with my now as I attempt to connect this notion to my love for both the guru shaper and the shaping machine.
First, the machine.
A thousand years ago, a freethinking kahuna found a piece of coral that worked better than the piece he already had for grinding koa trees into surfboards—and from there, to my mind, boardmaking tech has been one long happy march forward, delivering us to our present-day CAD-programmed spindle-driven five-axis foam-carving hot rod with mounted digital probe scanning function and dual cup holders.
The boardmaking Holy Grail, people. All design variables finally under control. Our greatest hands-on shapers were great indeed, but none can eyeball or “feel” a shape job down to ± 0.01-inch tolerance. And why should they? You shouldn’t have to tune the piano and write the song at the same time. Just write the song.
On the other hand, the machine does not fit in with our shared belief—something I hold near and dear—that surfing is half sport and half infinite R&D adventure; and in fact by leaning into the code and the hardware we have exterminated the wizards.
The boards are better but the sport is duller.
My head is with the machines, in other words, but my heart is with Dick Brewer, who sat there ancient and stone-faced in his booth in Del Mar, by the looks of it already in silent conversation with his kami gods. I already miss him. Ten-thousand machines will give us 10-million perfect boards, but the sport will nonetheless be poorer for never again having an exchange like the one that took place in 1970, when Jeff Hakman stopped by Brewer’s factory to pick up a new gun.
Jeff, the hottest North Shore surfer at the time, and probably the nicest as well, looked his gleaming new stick over and casually wondered if maybe the tail was a tiny bit too pulled in? Brewer didn’t say a thing, just picked up a saw, cut the back 12 inches off, and let the board drop to the floor. Turned to Hakman and asked, “How’s that? Is that better for you?” Nobody gurued like Brewer.
PS: It took 50 years, but I finally had a real conversation with Jeff Ho, my own original shaping guru. Jeff was the first person I saw at the Boardroom Show—he is a low-key underground dandy in his classic dark-blue Zephyr Team T-shirt and the flowing-white Gandolf hair-and-beard combo—and we chatted away for 20 minutes, which was 19.5 minutes more than my longest conversation with him back in the old days.
Jeff is not as old as Dick Brewer, but getting up there nonetheless, and while we laughed and reminisced he nonetheless seemed a little vague on details. Then at the very end I asked about a board he made me in 1972. Jeff closed his eyes for a moment, then looked at me and said “6′ 6″ roundpin, clear, wider in the hips than the one I made you before that.” I shook his hand but should have dropped to my knees and kowtowed.
(You like this? Matt Warshaw delivers a surf history essay every Sunday, PST. All of ’em a pleasure to read. Maybe time to subscribe to Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing, yeah? Three bucks a month.)
Editor’s note: After reading this wonderful piece, I wanted to clarify with Warshaw if he was pro or anti-machines. “100% machines in terms of what is best for 2021 or any period since . . . what, 1995? The machines are the best and least-appreciated development in boardmaking, ever. That said, the sport was more interesting and more fun before the machines, when we all sat at the feet of the great shapers, even if it was just the local hot-shot… But my strike rate with those guys, even the best of ’em, was pretty low. Machine-made boards, it was (still is) bang, bang, bang, very good or magic, one after the other. So thank you and goodbye, shaping guru.”